19 May 2021

Build Back Better - Data centres are central to the NHS’s and Matt Hancock’s digital transformation plan.

As a consequence of the last 16 months the NHS is at a major crossroads. It’s no longer sustainable for this brilliant and long-standing institution to deliver patient care in the way it did pre-pandemic because expectations have shifted drammatically, and the socio-economic landscape has changed.

IT costs have increased, comms infrastructures are maxed-out and there has been a surge in demand for specialist ICU equipment, medical supplies, PPE, treatment therapies, and drug regimes. The NHS is under pressure to deliver so much right now that it needs to find new, innovative ways of achieving this if performance targets are to be met going forwards. Step forward the the era of artificial intelligence (AI), IoT and supercomputing.

Senior executives had been investigating viable ways of overhauling routine processes and logistics long before Covid-19 wreaked havoc. Indeed, when the NHS first published its long-term transformation plan in 2019, an agenda which outlined key areas for improvement over the next 10 years, it recognised that technology refreshes, IoT and digitisation were fundamental to realising performance targets, reducing waiting times, streamlining internal operations and drawing up medical regimes to maintain high standards of care, both in hospitals and the wider community.

Many aspects have already been achieved well ahead of schedule. Online services such as self-help diagnoses, online clinics, virtual ward rounds, digitised prescription processing etc were rolled out in just a few weeks to reduce in-person contact and to try and prevent facilities from reaching crisis point. And while it had teething issues (as could be expected when developing IT solutions for the masses at the coalface, during the height of a pandemic) digital services such as Track & Trace, the Covid-19 App, and the digital structure around our incredible vaccination programme have shown data can really streamline healthcare efforts.

Underpinning IT not in synch with digitised services

However, in parallel, it soon became apparent that there were major gaps in the underpinning IT infrastructures, instrumental to the smooth running of digitised healthcare which posed clinical, security and operational risks. This holds particularly true for the comms rooms housing patient files, medical records, drug inventories and other critical information.

Historically many NHS trusts have had their IT facilities dispersed across multiple buildings and multiple sites. Not only does this present synchronisation challenges, failover problems and performance inefficiencies, often resulting in system failures, these legacy facilities pose serious cybersecurity risks, with isolated data silos vulnerable to attack.

The security aspect has been heightened further over the last few months due to the need for remote access to centralised systems for homeworking purposes. The NHS fell victim to cybercrime in May 2017, bringing services to a standstill for several days and costing £millions. As more and more services are going online, cyber-crime threats are at an all-time high.

Process automation is needed for slicker operations

As well as reforming clinical processes, the digital transformation plan also recognises the need to streamline operations by embracing smart technologies powered by AI. Although huge progress has been made from a clinical perspective, day-to day operations are still reliant on human involvement. Hospitals are often understaffed at best, self-isolation and teams being confined to specific wards for the duration of their shift are not making things any easier. Everyday tasks such as tracking down the whereabouts of lifesaving ICU or other medical assets can so easily be automated, as can the management of supplies, or the delivery of vaccination supplies with short shelf-lives.

Smart technologies powered by AI are also key to accelerating drug manufacture and to the management of national databases. These same technologies are also powering machines at the forefront of medical science and fostering greater connections between front-end services like the NHS and PHE and the life sciences and pharmaceutical companies who supply and support them.

Take NVIDIA’s Cambridge-1, hosted within our Harlow data centre for example. This supercomputer – the UK’s most powerful - is being used by hospital R&D teams from Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust alongside pharmaceutical and life sciences companies such as AstraZeneca, GSK and Oxford Nanopore. This greater collaboration, albeit on one supercomputing platform, can massively accelerate research into healthcare challenges, including those caused by Covid-19.

More tech means more data

Process automation, AI and IoT are on course to transform healthcare. However, an unavoidable consequence of digitisation is the amount of data generated as a result, and the more tech deployed, the greater the need for seamless data capture and manipulation. Ambitions of truly embracing next generation technologies can be little more than a pipedream for many NHS Trusts due to their outdated systems and networks.

Commissioning an onsite data centre is not only hugely expensive, rollouts can be lengthy and specialist buildings with appropriate cooling are needed. And there is also the maintenance aspect to think of. The NHS is under constant financial scrutiny and for many facilities, having the bandwidth, let alone the expertise needed to commission appropriate infrastructure that meets stringent regulatory requirements is a non-starter.

To operate new initiatives like the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) and Joint BioSecurity centre as well as deliver on Matt Hancock’s 5 mission critical areas of digital health technology, resilient and robust data centre provision will be absolutely paramount.

A campus of tomorrow meeting the needs of today

This is where future-ready campuses and industrial scale colocation facilities like ours come in. Equipped with all-fibre networks for swift processing and interconnectivity via secure connections in-line with personal data protection laws, we’re able provide the robust colocation infrastructure needed to power digitised healthcare services quickly and cost effectively.

3rd party Tier 3 OCP-Ready data centre design, build and operation has already been seen by the financial services industry as a means for it to focus on shareholder development as opposed to the infrastructure to support them. This same model will hopefully now be actively absorbed and implemented across the healthcare service to free up valuable time and resource for developing patient management and associated healthcare.

And, here in Harlow, we’re helping support and nurture a genuine ecosystem of healthcare and life science organisations who are reliant on data. Whether it be the Cambridge-1 partners I’ve already mentioned, or the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) who operate their data archives from our data centre, or the numerous small AI start-ups doing breakthrough work into genome sequencing and drug discovery – we’re providing the long-term foundations for digital healthcare to flourish.

Rod Faul

Rod Faul is Senior Client Director at Kao Data and has enjoyed a 30-year career within Tier 1 telco and data centre sectors, working with some of the largest colocation end-users in the industry.


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